Come See How We Live Here

NYC-Dublin portal; photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters via CBC

OK, so this is another of Dave’s wild and crazy ideas. This one is especially annoying because I have neither the expertise/resources to bring it to fruition, nor the social skills to make it happen. And I’m not terribly optimistic it could even accomplish its objective. But I think it might be a good idea, if the several million potential obstacles and risks could be resolved.

You may have seen one or another of the art “installations” called portals either live on online. Perhaps inspired by the Stargate sci-fi series portals, the idea is that two cities a long way apart agree to create a large, hi-res, live 24/7 video cam image of some public location in the other city, so that visitors to either portal can see (and perhaps talk with) people on the other side of the world in real time. Its purpose really is just to demolish myths about how people in other countries live.

So the one pictured above is in NYC and is a portal to Dublin, Ireland, created by the Lithuanian artist Benediktas Gylys. He has another one connecting Vilnius, Lithuania with Lublin, Poland. The portals have no audio, so at this point you can’t talk with people on the ‘other side’. Still, it’s been popular. And the NYC/Dublin portal has already been abused — “rude behaviours” of offensive signs, images and displays caused it to be temporarily shut, and it now blurs images of anyone getting “too close” to the portal camera.

Benediktas says the purpose of the portals is to show people that we’re all the same.

I think this is a worthy goal. When I’ve spoken to people over the years to get a sense of how they think people in very different cultures live, I’ve been shocked by their responses. Some believe, for example, that people in most of Africa live in huts in the jungle, and that most people in Afghanistan similarly live in small desert dwellings under the watchful eye of armed militias. More alarming, many seem to believe that the majority of the world’s people are dreadfully unhappy, miserable, struggling, and enormously envious and covetous of the western way of life.

As I wrote in one of my earlier posts:

There are lots of YouTube videos by people talking about and showing us their home towns and how they live. Like this one showing life in Tehran, Iran, and Elina Bakunova’s videos about her home country Russia, and the day-in-the-life videos by Daniel Dumbrill taken across China. These posts are neither sponsored by state propaganda agencies, nor by anti-government hate-mongers seeking a pretext for war. The picture they paint is a balanced one, of lives that have the same ordinary modern ups and downs we pretty much all deal with. Their lives are so much like ours in so many ways. Why do we keep forgetting that?

Of course, such videos have their problems too. They can be staged. We can’t know if they’re showing us an accurate story. Conditions in many countries vary widely from area to area (and between classes), so what we’re seeing may not be representative of what life is like for others in the country. And they’re one-way — we can’t talk with the people portrayed and ask them questions.

Still, with most people in the west supporting the Professional Managerial Caste’s reckless war-mongering against Russia and China, anything that might convince the majority that there is absolutely no need to fight “forever wars” would be useful to counter the endless propaganda. This is particularly a concern in the US, where only about 20% of citizens even have passports (it’s 80% or more in most countries, and their citizens are much more likely to have visited at least one “non-western” country).

But we do have a technology that would allow us to create portals between just about any two locations, much less expensively and with potentially fewer risks and restrictions than the artists’ installations. It’s called Zoom.

So that’s my idea: Create a large number of portals using Zoom that follow these criteria:

  • No scripting or pre-recorded materials, since anything written and edited in advance would be more susceptible of being staged or otherwise propagandized. These would instead be live, real-time ‘travelogue’-type ‘visits’ to the everyday world of those on the ‘other side’ of the portal.
  • Common framework for comparability and to avoid ‘one-upmanship’. Say, three hours total length, of which the first two hours is a live capture of something ordinary in the lives of those on the ‘other side’ of the portal — a shopping trip, a visit to the park or the city, a meal at home — with a casual description of what we’re seeing and thoughts on some common issues like what the greatest challenges and greatest joys in people’s everyday lives are. And the third hour (either at the end or interspersed) would be interactive Q&A between the viewers and those on the ‘other side’.
  • Curated by an independent body to ensure the productions under the curated ‘brand’ are impartial and authentic — neither propagandizing for or against any country’s government. In fact, they’d be best if they avoided political commentary entirely, and just showed (rather than told) viewers what everyday life there is like.

Yes, I know there are a lot of problems with this idea. Lots of opportunities and incentives for abuse, for misappropriation, and for misrepresentation. And maybe the problems and risks are so great that it’s not a good idea at all — maybe the abuses would inevitably enshittify the entire idea before it could even get off the ground, actually increasing rather than decreasing our misunderstandings about how others live and how they feel about other countries and cultures.

I look at the possibilities here, and at the dangers, and it fills me with a kind of despair. We could be using new technologies to increase mutual understanding, appreciation and knowledge about other cultures. But almost every new technology of the internet age has instead been misappropriated to spread deliberate falsehoods, hate, fear, and conspiracy theories by those with a vested interest in maximizing conflict, distrust and misunderstanding and minimizing any possibility of global peace.

But I had to write about it anyway. Maybe it’s just a marvellous but unachievable possibility. You know, like the internet originally was.

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2 Responses to Come See How We Live Here

  1. Steve Hinton says:

    Way to go!
    On a similar theme, Skype had “Skype in the classroom” they’d hook up two classrooms from opposite sides of the world, even managed to have a satellit link with an Everest climber.

    Our transition group had a village meeting and invited other villages, we had two or three, one from the US. We had one camera on the audience, one on a hot seat. One on the anchorman.

    It was really sweet – and yes most were experiencing the same.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Steve. Interesting applications. Yes, lots of possibilities here. I think there’s a reason that Zoom has survived the ‘end’ of the pandemic.

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